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Improvising NPCs: “X but Y”

January 12, 2014

I saw a pretty interesting question where someone was asking how to improvise important NPCs quickly and easily.  I realized one of the tricks I use is “X but Y” to build an NPC conceptually.

X is the general gist of the character in one aspect, Y is the twist or part that stands out from it.  It applies across a few categories.

Appearance

In real life, our brains tend to use shortcuts to identify people.  You might have someone drastically change their hairstyle, or their usual types of clothing, and suddenly you don’t recognize them.

X is the general description of the character, Y is the part that stands out from even that.  It can be a physical feature or something about how they move or stand.

“She’s broadly built, muscled like a laborer, but you see her sword moves graceful and light.”

“He’s tall and lanky, pale and sickly looking.  But his stride is forceful, almost as if he was forcing his way through life by will alone.”

“The soldier’s armor is beat up, many campaigns and battles and his face nearly matches it.  Then there’s a goofy grin.  He’s seen a lot but he’s still got life in him.”

or… you can do it in creepy ways too:

“The wretched thing that stands rotting before you almost makes you retch with the smell of it, as a small piece slides off of it’s left hand.  But worse than the scent is the face, that of an unblemished toddler, unrotten, somehow, on this lanky adult corpse body.”

Motivations

X is the expected motivations of the NPC given their job, class, or allegiance to some faction in the game.  Y is the exception, limit, or contrary motivation to that.

– The bandit wants to steal from the heroes, but has no interest in killing anyone.

– The marshall wants to catch the crooks, but also wants to be the only one who gets credit for it.

– The ghost will seek to drag others to death, but will protect children, always.

X is nearly always the obvious thing for a character, but Y is where you get to add a fun twist or personality to them.

Building Further

X/Y is the beginning point to a character – not the totality of them.  Once you have this basic visual and motivation parts down, you can always ask “Why?” as you go.  The break between X and Y is where you can find yourself inspired to come up with new, interesting story and character bits and develop an NPC fully.

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